BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The postcard image of this proud city is Avenida 9 de Julio, a triumphant boulevard that is by some accounts the widest street in the world. There’s two parts to the picture everyone knows. One is the towering Obelisk commemorating the founding of Buenos Aires. The other is the 20 lanes of traffic commemorating the city’s love of cars.
In the past year, half of that image has changed dramatically. City work crews ripped out four of those traffic lanes in the middle of the roadway. In just seven months, they gave the space entirely to buses and the people who ride them.
Buses used to be stuck in the mix of traffic on 9 de Julio, jostling with with cars, taxis and trucks. Now, buses have their own lanes for 3 km before peeling off into traffic to get to their destinations. More than 200,000 commuters, many of them traveling to or from the suburbs, enjoy a faster ride that also makes a subway transfer obsolete.
Marcelina Rodríguez is one of them. "This is really good," says Rodríguez, who lives in the suburb of Avellaneda, south of the city, and commutes daily to her work downtown. "It used to take me an hour to reach downtown. Now I can do it in 40 minutes."
Rodríguez says she also appreciates the amenities of the new system, called Metrobus. There are spacious, well-lighted shelters that have seats and a wi-fi connection. There’s also a platform raised to the same level as the bus floor for easy boarding and screens that provide real-time travel information.
Bus-rapid transit systems with features like this are nothing new in South America. In fact, compared with world-renowned systems in Curitiba, Brazil and Bogotá, Colombia, it’s safe to say that Buenos Aires is well behind its neighbors.
But what Buenos Aires did is about as bold as it gets when it comes to making can’t-be-missed statements about what urban mobility means today. The 9 de Julio Metrobus is a sort of transport surgery on the beating heart of the city — similar in ways to what New York City did a few years ago when it shut cars out of parts of Times Square.
"It speaks a lot about a city, to be able to change the thing people are so proud of," says Andrés Fingeret, director of the Argentina office of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. The international organization recently gave Buenos Aires its Sustainable Transport Award for 2014.
"Avenida 9 de Julio used to be a monument to cars," says Fingeret. "Now, it's reshaping the city as a monument to people."
'It Benefits Everyone'
The transformation was controversial. The loudest opposition came from groups of architects, city planners, and environmentalists who didn't want to see 1,500 trees and the small green spaces surrounding them removed. (Most of the trees were replanted elsewhere.) Some said the project should be built on the outer edges of the avenue, not in the middle of it.
Critics also argued that the intervention was costly and redundant, since a subway line running below 9 de Julio covers the same route. Some drivers complained that left turns from the roadway would become impossible. And inevitably, the project got swept up in national politics: Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires and the bus route’s champion, is a political opponent of the current president of Argentina.
Now that the bus system is operational, most of the opposition has gone away. That's because it's helped to unclog traffic and reduced travel times for just about everybody traveling through the area. According to Guillermo Dietrich, the city’s undersecretary for transport, travel time is down for buses by 50 percent, for minibuses (private buses that make fewer stops) by 45 percent, and for cars by 20 percent.
"It benefits everyone," says Dietrich, "even those traveling by car." He points out that cars still have ten central lanes to use, plus three exclusive side lanes and a parking bay — and the buses are no longer fighting with them in traffic.
The project cost 195 million Argentine pesos ($25 million U.S.) to build. That was 70 percent over-budget, but also a tiny fraction of what an above-ground or below-ground rail system would have cost. The government also estimates that the streamlining of traffic will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5,600 tons per year. That would be the equivalent of taking 4,300 cars off the road for 12 months. This has yet to be measured.
A Pedestrian-Scale Downtown
Just as interesting as what’s happening on 9 de Julio are the changes going on just a few steps away from it.
Buses used to run on the narrow and busy downtown streets nearby. Now, those buses have been diverted to the exclusive lanes on 9 de Julio. And the city has turned about 100 blocks of those once noisy and polluted roads into either fully pedestrianized streets or pedestrian-priority zones. The latter allow for vehicles but only at speeds of under 10 km/h and with special permits issued only to those who have parking spaces within the zone.
The busiest part of the city is thus becoming a pleasant place to go for a walk. Early in the morning, it’s possible to hear birds singing and the patter of footsteps on pavement.
To create this new pedestrian-friendly environment, the city raised streets up to sidewalk level to create a flat walking surface. Bollards were put up to keep out cars and trash containers were put underground to keep down the stench. To add to the ambiance at night, iconic buildings within the area were lit up with energy-saving LED lamps.
This is all part of an effort to get people to move downtown, close to their workplace. The idea is to add value to the area, create a more active nightlife and variety of tourist attractions. On the new pedestrianized streets, restaurants and bars have put up tables on the sidewalks and night-time activity has greatly increased.
"The downtown is now better from an aesthetic point of view, and it's more comfortable and quieter to walk around," says Darío López, a pedestrian who works in a nearby bank. "I guess this affects people who have cars, but it's good for us."
'More Democracy on the Road'
Dietrich says 90 percent of those who move around the city are pedestrians. But previously, 70 percent of the space downtown was used by cars and buses. Now that distribution has basically been flipped around in the pedestrian-priority zones. The city also has added 130 km of bike lanes.
There is still plenty of space to drive in Buenos Aires. But what’s happening here represents something of a rebalancing between cars and everything else. While car ownership remains an aspiration for many people, the reality is that 65 percent of homes in Buenos Aires and its surrounding areas do not have a car. Some 8 million people commute by bus daily.
"There is more democracy on the road," explains architect Emiliano Espasandin, from the University of Palermo. "The 20th century brought with it the highway boom. The street is now for everyone."
Buenos Aires already had a pretty comprehensive bus system, with good frequencies and 24-hour service. The first step toward improving it with bus rapid transit came three years ago when the first Metrobus line was installed on a corridor away from downtown. That allowed city officials to gain some experience in a less sensitive artery before tackling the bigger challenge that was 9 de Julio.
Since the 9 de Julio project was finished last July, a new bus rapid transit corridor has opened in the south part of the city. Recently the city announced it would extend the system to another four major roads. By 2015, it is expected that 1.2 million passengers will benefit from the Metrobus system.
Dietrich says the incremental approach has been a big lesson from Buenos Aires. It's important to choose the location of an experiment wisely, he says, and to know that each city and even neighborhoods within a city have their own specific characteristics. "This is not copying and pasting," he says. “You have to adapt the idea to each city."
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.